An article in the Guardian today (link below) was headed: “New research shows that liberal and conservative Christians tailor their saviour to fit their beliefs.” The headline is a statement of the blindingly obvious particularly to anyone who knows anything about or is involved in churches. Did it really need research from a world-class university – not necessarily world-class research – to discover this, when, for example, the C of E for many years was known as the Tory party at prayer while countless troublesome priests proved that a charge that could not be made to stick universally? Nevertheless, the article does raise some important issues.
The first thing we have to admit, all of us, whether we have faith or not, whether that faith is Christian or not, is that we all look at the world through certain lenses. Those lenses will have been formed and shaped by our upbringing, our experiences, our learning, the lenses through which the world was viewed by those who have been influential in our lives, shaped indeed by our capacity for imagination, our ability to empathise with the situation of others.
Secondly, despite the easy question of the WWJD bumper sticker – the answers to life’s serious issues are not found simply by recourse to asking “What would Jesus do?” as if there were some guide-book containing the simple solutions for every problem. What would Jesus do about euthanasia? Look up rule number 623. Asking “what would Jesus do? is not the end of the questioning but one possible starting place, and one that – calling myself a Christian – I choose for myself, recognising that others may start elsewhere.
Thirdly, this is about how we read the Bible, or how the Bible might best be read from a faith perspective (I do not comment on how others read their sacred books). The church, generally, has not (despite the views of some within and some without the institution) seen the Bible as the sole arbiter of human understanding of the divine will, human behaviour or the truths within its (varied according to denomination) covers. All the major denominations have for centuries relied to a greater or lesser degree upon three sources in the development of their various understandings: Scripture (the Bible), tradition (the story of the church over two millennia) and reason (not necessarily in the beginning what we would now think of as reason, that is rational enquiry but participatory experience). It is suggested that John Wesley separated reason and experience, using both alongside Scripture and tradition in the development of his understanding, and perhaps in a response to a changing meaning of the word “reason.” (I’d welcome the thoughts of others with skills in this area on this point particularly.)
Fourthly, the Bible itself provides a place of dialogue rather than a guide or “how to” book. Read the Bible as literal instruction and one is liable to end up in serious trouble with any right thinking authority in double quick time. And anyone who argues that that is unlikely or means that the authorities are out of step with God haven’t read the bit about putting to death children who curse their parents! If that is the divine will, then I shall hang up my collar! (Which just goes to prove that an old liberal like me chooses to read the Bible through his own lenses, does it not?) The New Testament cannot be read apart from what Christians call the Old Testament; and for Christians, the Old Testament cannot be read except through the lens of the New. The Bible provides an internal dialogue.
Fifthly, the church provides a further place of dialogue (or it can where it is not so power-obsessed as to believe everything has to be handed down by those who know best for the consumption and ready obedience of the ignorant masses.) The church is the coming together around the Christian story where our corporate lenses are pooled as we begin to find our way through those big life-questions around and within the Jesus story.
Sixthly, and recognising that the world-viewing lenses of Christians are not all manufactured in-house, the church enters into dialogue with the world, a world about which much more is known and understood than over the hundreds of years of the Bible’s creation an compilation. Some do, but most of us do not want to pretend that our understanding of geology, cosmology, psychology, biology and so on have remained unchanged for the last three thousand years.
Newsflash: Christians come to different conclusions. Sorry, move along now. Nothing to see here. Just a piece of old news blowing in the wind!